God and Pesto Are Dead

The Genoese were miffed about my Pesto Generator — but for Americans, cultural contamination is love

Photo: AD Studio/Unsplash; all other images courtesy of Jason Wilson.

Friedrich Nietzsche came to Genoa in the 1880s, ailing and syphilitic, and declared, “God is dead.” Italy’s ancient Mediterranean port city inspired Nietzsche to write “The Gay Science,” his ode to freedom and a new future for humanity (and heretical at the time): “Individuals and generations can now fix their eyes on tasks of a vastness that would to earlier ages have seemed madness and a trifling with Heaven and Hell. We may experiment with ourselves!”

More than 125 years later, I arrived in Genoa, syphilis-free but guilty, in the eyes of the Genoese, of a heresy almost as serious as Nietzsche’s. In the year prior, 2016, I’d written an article on pesto for the food section of The Washington Post that extolled the virtues of free thinking and breaking with tradition. I suggested recipes for inauthentic pesto made with arugula, pumpkin seeds, and Gouda; pesto made with mint, parsley, pistachio, and manchego; pesto made with Swiss chard, dandelion, hazelnuts, pecans. I even included a Pesto Generator, a chart with three columns so readers could choose one of six greens, six nuts, and six cheeses at random to create (along with garlic, salt, and oil) a bespoke pesto. “Choose one each from Columns A, B, and C,” I wrote. “Tradition be damned.”

The people of Genoa were not amused. For those who live in the spiritual home of pesto, the sauce must only be made from the following ingredients: special Genoese basil that’s only grown in Liguria, special garlic that’s only grown in the small village of Vessalico, Parmigiano Reggiano and/or Pecorino, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pine nuts. My alternative recipes were met with some anger. “These are problems for us Ligurians, since we have pesto in our blood,” wrote one food blogger named Guilio Nepi. “We are attached to our habits like snails on a rock. Pesto is Genoa, and on certain things you don’t mess around.” Nepi was particularly incensed by the Pesto Generator, “made on purpose to buck tradition, to oppose the tradition. Indeed, ‘tradition be damned.’ A fuck-you to tradition.” Someone on Twitter attacked me for using rigatoni in one recipe, a pasta that apparently no self-respecting Ligurian would ever use for pesto. A writer for the food website Scatti di Gusto, Valerio Pagano, called my take on pesto “sacrilege” and a “crime.” Pagano wrote, “How to ruin the pesto in six thousand ways. Jason knows how to do it.” He added: “The pesto can be done in one and only one way. No distractions are allowed.”

So it came as a surprise, a year later, when I was invited to speak at an international pesto conference in Genoa. The organizer, Roberto Panizza, also runs the biennial Pesto World Championship and owns a trattoria called Il Genovese, which for many is the high temple of pesto. When I’d met Panizza the year before, and told him about my arugula-pumpkin seed-Gouda pesto, he replied: “It sounds like a nice sauce. But it is not a pesto.” Panizza wanted me to speak at the conference as a sort of devil’s advocate. My topic: Breaking With Tradition: Il Pesto All’Americano.

Regardless of how the city’s gastronomes feel about me and my pesto, I love Genoa very much. Beyond the food, I enjoy Genoa because it’s the antithesis to the usual touristic “Under the Tuscan Sun” thing, a working city that’s gritty and beautiful and melancholy. Historically, its heyday was during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, when this maritime city-state, Christopher Columbus’ hometown, did a robust spice trade with the Middle East and beyond.

When I arrived, I immediately strolled through the medieval quarter down to the old harbor and ate a breakfast of onion focaccia with a cool glass of Pigato white wine. After that, I had some farinata, the famed chickpea torte, and then a lunch of two pastas, one of ravioli made with cuttlefish ink and the other, corzetti, paper-thin and stamped in the shape of old coins, with salsa di noci — a classic Ligurian walnut sauce that, to be honest, should be as famous as pesto. After lunch, I was asked to appear on a local radio show with one of the organizers of the pesto conference. I thought I was doing pretty well chatting away in Italian about my American ideas on unconventional pesto, at least until the radio host turned to me and said, “We can speak in English if you want to.”

That night, I had dinner at Il Genovese, where Panizza plied me with Rossese di Dolceacqua red wine and huge plates of pesto-smothered trofie and testaroli. Testaroli are fluffy trapezoids that fall somewhere between pasta and pancake, and may or may not date to the ancient Etruscans, a sort of ur-pasta. Panizza’s pesto has a velvety, rich texture that one can only get from a mortar and pestle — Il Genovese has a marble mortar the size of a bird feeder and a pestle the size of a baseball bat. The word pesto derives from “pestare,” meaning to pound or crush. On a previous trip to Genoa, I’d bought a beautiful mortar and pestle, but admitted in my article that I rarely use it, preferring the ease of the food processor.

Panizza told me that the theme of the entire conference the next day would be “Mortars and Pestles in Food Cultures.” I laughed and said this whole thing was starting to feel like a setup. Panizza graciously said he looked forward to my talk, but joked: “There may be some people who will make sure you don’t leave.”

“All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting.”

When I arrived the next morning at the Palazzo della Borsa, the place was swarming with carabinieri. Overnight, Donald Trump had ordered missiles to be fired into Syria. The defense minister of Italy, born and raised in Genoa, had been scheduled to give some remarks at the pesto conference. Because of this, there had been an early-morning bomb scare. The police quickly determined this was a false threat, though the defense minister did send her regrets that she could not attend “because of current events.” I couldn’t help but reflect on Panizza’s joke from the previous evening.

The day began with panelists calling on UNESCO to safeguard traditional Ligurian pesto, made with mortar and pestle, as an intangible cultural heritage. “This battle we have been fighting for 10 years,” said Sergio Di Paolo, one of the event’s organizers.

There seemed to be some debate over how to best present the history of pesto. A professor from the University of Genoa seemed to endorse the idea that pesto evolved from the city’s role as a cosmopolitan port with foreign influence. “Our city has always been a gateway, a place of trade and exchanges with the outside world,” the professor said. Meanwhile, the president of Genoa’s chamber of commerce seemed interested in downplaying the outside influences on his city’s cuisine: “I want to dispel the idea that pasta was brought back from China.”

Panizza bemoaned the “globalization of pesto” and painted a picture of people from Germany to Japan to Australia who “eat a panino with pesto as if it were natural” without ever knowing the real, authentic thing. “Pesto used to be a niche product, but now it is a mass product,” Panizza said. “For the Genoese, we are losing our culture. The word ‘pesto’ has become a marketing word. We feel this is wrong. I don’t think we will win this battle, but we need to say it.”

I wasn’t the only non-Italian on the agenda. There were demonstrations of mortar and pestle foods from other cultures: Japanese gomasio (a sesame salt condiment), Lebanese kishk (fermented and dried bulgur-yogurt powder), and Mexican guacamole. All of which fit pesto into the context of traditional methods from around the world.

When it was finally time for my panel, we decided it was best I deliver my talk in English, with translation. As the translator looked through my PowerPoint slides, she said, in a rather accusatory tone, “You know, your president has bombed Syria.” I shrugged and said I was aware, but that he wasn’t really my president.

The first presenter on our panel was a food writer and historian named Sergio Rossi, the author of “Pasta in Liguria,” among other books. “I’ll try to be as brief as possible since I don’t have much time,” Rossi said. “So, starting in 1574…” He insisted that the Genoese traded in wheat, that wheat was Italian, and that pasta dates back at least nine centuries, before Marco Polo. Testaroli, he noted, was older than the Middle Ages.

Finally, it was my turn. I shared my recipe for arugula, pumpkin seed, and Gouda pasta, along with my mix-and-match Pesto Generator. I saw and heard audible gasps of horror from some older people in the audience. I presented a very brief history of pesto in America: the first published recipe in a 1946 issue of Sunset Magazine; the first mention in the New York Times food section in 1974; the exploding popularity of pesto in the 1980s; the unfortunate addition of sun-dried tomatoes to American pesto in the 1990s; the rise of pesto on the menu at Subway, Quizno’s, and McDonald’s in the 2000s. I made the case that, in the U.S., we don’t have access to the same basil, garlic, and pine nuts as in Liguria, and so we have to improvise. And I tried to fit pesto into the context of other mashup Italian American dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs and fettuccine alfredo.

Paolo di Croce, the secretary-general of Slow Food International, once said to me: “What is Italian food anyway? When you think of Italy, you think of pasta with a tomato sauce. But tomatoes are not Italian.” Tomatoes don’t appear in an Italian pasta recipe until the early 19th century. So tomatoes, in Italian cuisine, are a classic case of “cultural contamination,” something the Italians themselves appropriated from elsewhere. “Without contamination, there is no tradition,” says di Croce. “Knowledge exchange is at the base of everything. We need to be flexible and learn from each other.”

I could see that about half the audience was not buying my shtick. So I sighed and said something like: “Please understand. We Americans do these things to pesto because we love pesto. We love pesto so much that we want to make pesto our own. Arugula, pumpkin seed, and Gouda pesto is not an act of culinary terrorism. Yes, you might say it’s a case of cultural appropriation. But really, it’s an act of love.”

I am happy to report that I received polite, if tepid, applause. Pretty much the reception one might get at any scholarly conference. Nothing bad happened afterward. Most people simply went to lunch. Rossi, the food historian, told Panizza that he loved my Pesto Generator. Panizza looked glum, as if he’d kind of been hoping the crowd might have thrown tomatoes at me.

“Maybe it’s just a matter of naming,” I said to him.

“Yes, but it’s too late now to change it,” Panizza said.

At the end of a long day, following two dozen presentations, Panizza invited a group to participate in a pesto-making contest using the mortar and pestle. He seemed exceedingly disappointed, irritated even, that I declined to take part. “Is it because we have no food processor?” he said.

Roberto Panizza with a mortar and pestle at Il Genovese.

The contestants ground away with their pestles and the air filled with the wonderful aromas of basil and garlic. As I watched, a young man approached me and introduced himself as Guilio Nepi — the writer who had passionately called out my article the year before. As so often turns out, Nepi was super nice and offered to take me on a food tour of Genoa the next day.

When I met him in the narrow alleyways of the medieval quarter the next morning, my first question was: “Where is the best focaccia in Genoa?” After all, I’ve had plenty of mediocre focaccia, which is plentiful back home, available everywhere from Panera to Trader Joe’s.

“Ah, this is an impossible question,” Nepi said. “Do you like crusty or not? Oily or not? Salty or not?” Nietzsche, who often delved into matters of taste, would have liked this answer. As he famously said, “All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting.”

“Focaccia,” Nepi said, “actually depends a lot on the weather.” On that particular spring day, it was sunny and warm. “Today,” he said with a smile, “the weather is perfect for focaccia.”

And so — even though God is dead and even though people like me may have ruined pesto — Nepi and I happily wandered the same streets that Nietzsche did. We ate a lot of focaccia on that day. All of it was good.

Editor, Planet of the Grapes. Author of Godforsaken Grapes, Boozehound, & The Cider Revival. Series editor of The Best American Travel Writing. jasonwilson.com

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